How to Care for Original Vintage Posters

Posters by their very nature are fragile – quite literally, paper thin – and were not intended to withstand many years of use, let alone 100, and in the case Cinematographie Lumiere, the earliest poster that the gallery has ever handled, dating back to 1896 – a staggering 119 years of age.  The survival of pristine posters over many decades, therefore, is seemingly nothing short of a miracle.

In the season when unique gifts are at the forefront of discerning present-buying minds, we ask gallery owner Bruce Marchant to divulge the secrets of how to keep original movie posters in impeccable condition and ensure longevity, when you are buying a gift of considerable rarity, fragility and age…..

Why is condition so important?

In the world of posters, condition is everything. Not only are posters in mint condition most vivid and attractive to look at, they are the examples that hold their value. Condition relating to age, along with title, director and the actors that starred, are the principle factors that dictate price and collectability.

What are the different types of damage to look out for?

Sunlight damage is the worst as it is impossible to correct. Once the poster has faded its value is greatly reduced.
If a poster gets damp it can be restored, also if there is a small tear or mark. It’s quite common to buy a poster that has a tape mark or pinhole. However I would advise not to consider a poster with holes or tears in the faces of the stars or key areas of the design.

Aston Martin V8 Volante, The Living Daylights (1987)

Aston Martin V8 Volante, The Living Daylights (1987)

Would the Gallery buy an imperfect poster?

You will often hear me say ‘I don’t buy posters that have problems’.  Sunlight damage or disfiguring tears and holes are a no. More recent posters from the 1980s onwards, the gallery will only buy in near-mint condition.
However, it is important to remember the business I’m in – trading in historical items – loss of condition comes in line with age, and (much like humans) this aging must be treated sympathetically and with consideration. Obviously, at the rarer end of the market, where there are only a few known examples of a poster, you make more allowances for imperfections, and so will collectors.
Up to the year 1977 the vast majority of posters that came off the press were machine folded. Star Wars in 1977 was the first ever mainstream poster to be issued rolled. If you think about it, we’re talking about posters that are 40+ years and so the paper along these folds will understandably be weak.

Do you restore posters?

Yes, I work with professional conservation experts.
First the piece is cleaned and de-acidified. Old posters did not have bleaching agents in the paper, so untreated paper gets brittle and browner with age due to the acid content. Again, these posters weren’t designed to survive all these years, only for the release of the movie in question.
Then the conservator builds a stretcher and covers it with acid free paper, and sticks the poster to the paper using a wheat starch glue with no acid (a reversible process). He then creates another stretcher with linen canvas. The paper between the canvas and the poster prevents the texture of the linen showing through.
Once backed onto linen, the poster is more robust and easy to roll and unroll, store in tubes and transport. Once mounted on the linen, the conservator will restore any pin holes or folds, using water based paints to touch up any folds and remove any white lines.
If you are using an expert conservator the whole process will be reversible, and completed to a museum quality standard.
It takes quite a long time and is relatively expensive to conserve a poster. Therefore it is often not worth it for the more common and inexpensive posters.

So is it better to buy a poster that is already restored and backed?

I recommend buying linen backed posters, as long as you know who you are buying it from and the full extent of any conservation.  If you don’t purchase a poster backed it is best to get specialist advice about which expert you should use. I find the best conservators are in Canada and California, so my posters frequently make that trans-atlantic journey.
If posters are linen backed they will be perfectly happy stored flat or can be rolled for several years in a large tube, and no harm will come to them. You may wonder why a collector would store a poster and not display it? Some of my clients have 100s of pieces and so will not have the physical space to hang every piece. For some, the joy is in the ownership, and they display their collection on rotation or even never display it at all – it takes all sorts! The gallery has made special display frames that allow you to rotate your collection instead of framing every piece.

What recommendations do you have about framing and hanging?

I must stress – never hang posters in a room in direct sunlight. A relatively bright room is fine as long as you use a frame with UV glass or UV plexi. However I would always encourage people to go for plexi these days and here’s why: While UV glass is optically coated, it is only at surface level and will deteriorate over time. UV plexi has UV protection the whole way through the material. Glass is also heavier to handle, and if it breaks you may be sending your poster straight to a conservator to deal with resulting damage!
It is also good to have a mount or a spacer between the plexi and the artwork – a good framer will arrange this for you.
I often assist my clients in arranging professional frame hanging in their homes.

How do posters compare with other collectibles one might buy as a present?

Original posters are comparable to comics in terms of price. However if you buy someone a collectable comic, featuring the characters and stories they love, they should not be opened, as this will damage the spine. This to me seems rather a pity.
With film posters, the stars and design are perfect to display and to enjoy adding to the décor of the room. They are also so emotive, and hold a cultural and nostalgic connection. One might also consider buying a loved one a limited edition print, which are collectible and attractive – yes – but would lack that emotive aspect. Everyone after all has a favourite film.

Top tip for gift buying?

Consider size. Not all pieces are as big as a US one sheet. Smaller pieces, like photographic stills and lobby cards, are inexpensive to frame and easy to hang. From this size up, the ceiling is the limit!
You can give a gift framed or unframed, although from my experience, framing is quite personal for some people. So unframed might be a wiser more affordable option for you. The vast majority of the older posters I have for sale are linen backed, and I can give you individual advice on framing.